If you live in the United States, you are lucky to have 58 National Parks available to visit without leaving the country. Without a doubt, the Grand Canyon, one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, should be on everyone’s bucket list. It will leave you speechless. It will leave you in awe. And it will be a moment in your life that you will never forget. I’ve been three times in my 32 years on this wondrous Earth, and have remembered every single time so vividly.
There are four areas of the National Park one can visit: the North, South, East, and West Rim – each with its own spectacular viewpoints, activities, and hiking spots.
The West Rim is where the Glass Skywalk juts out 70 feet over the canyon and is the second most visited rim, due to its proximity to Las Vegas. This part of the canyon is part of the Hualapai Indian Tribal Lands, which means it is actually not part of the National Park.
The East Rim has become more popular due to Horseshoe Bend. This part of the canyon is technically 7 miles before the Grand Canyon, but provides views of the canyon rim with the Colorado River directly in the background. Horseshoe Bend is definitely worth a small detour if you have the time.
The North Rim is perfect for those looking for a quieter and calmer atmosphere as it receives much fewer visitors. There are only three major viewpoints that show the width of the canyon rather than the depth and only a sliver of the Colorado River can be seen by walking through Angel’s Window, a natural archway in the rocks.
The South Rim is the most popular rim due to its vast, expansive views. This rim is where the first tourists came to visit the park back in the 1850s, which is why it has been built up with large visitor centers, lodging, and family-oriented activities. There are about two dozen major viewpoints that allow visitors to peer down into the Colorado River.
I’ve been lucky enough to experience the Grand Canyon in different ways. For a quick glimpse, a short four hour road trip from Las Vegas just to peer at the vastness of the Canyon’s West Rim is well worth the trip. But the canyon deserves much more of our time.
In 2009, I stepped into a raft along the East Rim and spent seven days rafting down the Colorado River rapids, jumping into the river from various cliffs, and sleeping on cots looking up at the night sky with the Milky Way peering back at me in its full splendor. This is a trip I will never forget; but even then I knew I was still missing a crucial adventure from this natural wonder. I needed to hike into the canyon. Ten years after my river trip, I did just that.
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon offers many trails to explore and choosing one can be overwhelming. I contemplated doing a trail that was not frequently ventured in order to be more “one with nature.” I had read about the popular Bright Angel Trail on the South Rim. that provides rest stops with bathrooms and water stations making it one of the most frequently trekked. I strongly considered the trail, despite the possible crowd of people and because of its accessibility to other trails. As fate would have it, I found a cabin in the village at the Bright Angel Lodge, steps away from the ever popular trail head and the rim of the canyon. While getting settled at the cabin and taking in the constant changing colors of my surroundings, I knew I was not going anywhere else to hike. I determined that at sunrise I was hiking Bright Angel Trail.
Sunrise came early, at 5:10 A.M., and I had already situated myself along the rim of the canyon with my camera in hand, ready to capture the beauty of the day’s first light touching the red rocks from the rim down to the canyon below. The sun rose slowly above the canyon and highlighted the beginning of the trail I was about to hike. At 5:45 A.M., I took my first steps onto the famous Bright Angel Trail. I was filled with energy and excitement, despite the early hour, and eager to see where the trail would lead.
One of the biggest advantages of an early start is the fact that not many people begin their day so early. The canyon itself was slow at waking up: the air had a slight chill, the sun was gently rising. The steep decline zigzagged through the many rocky switchbacks and the towering rocks above provided me with shade. I was well aware that shade would be a high commodity in the hours ahead of me, so I welcomed the moment. Up to this point, the canyon rocks above me changed in size, color, and formation at every turn. The sheer size of them did not even seem real or possible. The canyon’s immensity made me feel as tiny as an ant.
The further along the trail I got, the more I found myself turning around to see just how far I had traveled, and how deep into the canyon I had reached; it is an elevation change of 3,000 feet after all. With every new switchback the views grew increasingly more majestic. I encountered a rest stop with bathrooms and water stations nearly every 1.5 miles down the trail and the first campground was around mile 4.5. At this point, the iron-rich rocks changed from rusty reds to light browns; the vegetation expanded to include pink and yellow blooming cacti; acacia trees filled the air with a honeysuckle-like perfume; and the sound of a trickling stream welcomed me to a natural oasis filled with life that has hardly been touched by man. This haven, known as the Indian Gardens, stood in dark contrast to the vast desert surrounding this area.
At the south side of the Indian Gardens, a fork in the road indicated to either head to Plateau Point, that offers views of the river below, or continue on Bright Angel Trail towards the river which can connect you to a multitude of different trails including a connection to the North Rim. No matter the choice, the majesty of the Canyon will never waver. Since I had spent 7 days floating on the river 10 years earlier, I thought gazing at the Colorado River from above would complete my Grand Canyon experience. After pushing an extra 1.5 miles to Plateau Point from Indian Gardens, the expansive panorama of the North Rim across the way and the aqua blue Colorado River raging 1,000 feet below was an image that will forever be ingrained in my memory.
By making it to Plateau Point and after a six mile trek under the sun, I felt exhilarated, strong, and full of life. I had made it to the point that I set out to accomplish. I had made it to a viewpoint that most people will never get to see. From this spot, I felt so miniscule and insignificant as the canyon from both the South and North Rims engulfed me, and the busyness of daily life seemed to be forgotten. There was no thought of the responsibilities I had back home, or even back at the top of the rim. Any concern or worry dissipated into the expansive contours of the canyon, and I was left with just the feeling of happiness in that moment. I was my best self, as I think everyone is when they push themselves to accomplish something filled with mental and physical challenges. It is a feeling we all need to hang onto and not forget. Granted, this feeling of pure contentment and strength quickly depletes as you realize there is a 3,000 foot elevation gain still ahead of you, but that happiness and strength comes back once atop of the canyon looking back down to where you had just come from.
Hiking back to the top of the South Rim, I wanted to remember every step I had taken. I frequently turned to look back at the path I had just left behind. Leaving the plateau and now back on the switchbacks, the greatness of this trail began to hit me, and I realized it was there the entire time. I had spent the better part of a day on the Bright Angel Trail, but it wasn’t until I was nearly back at the top that I really noticed the vast beauty of it. The way back to the top, also put the strength and determination I had into perspective, as I now realized the many people I encountered on the switchbacks had no intention of making it past the 3 mile or even the 1.5 mile rest area. The 8 hour, 12.2 mile round trip trek on Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point was worth every bead of sweat and every foot step. The trail is dynamic and peaceful and reminds you of what is important – living in the moment and cherishing the experience.
My challenge to you, dear reader, is that you travel to the Grand Canyon. Whether you hike the 12.2 miles to Plateau Point, head to the river, or turn back somewhere in between, may you feel that complete bliss that comes with hiking Bright Angel Trail. I am willing to bet that the magic of the Canyon will change you and leave you with an everlasting memory that will never fade.